All hail Dame Liz, a gay icon for everyone to share

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The Independent Online

So now Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor are officially supposed to be addressed by their first names, as in: "Dame Elizabeth will open an exhibition of portraits of herself today at the National Portrait Gallery," or, "Dame Elizabeth will attend an Aids charity benefit this evening and be introduced to a lot of gay men who curtsy nervously and promptly faint."

For once, this feudal familiarity reflects a trend of contemporary culture - these days everyone is on star-struck first-name terms with all those special, "divine" women (not just Liz and Julie) who occupy a place in gay men's lives: Bette! Judy! Joan! Marilyn! Liza! Barbra! And attuned to all those signifiers - big hair! exaggerated cigarette movements! tragedy! strength! psychotic stares! impossible bosoms! excessive femininity! - that made them so obviously "camp".

In an era riddled with (and addled by) postmodernism, everyone wants to be in on the smirky joke and at the same time on their knees at the altar of false gods. The "gay icon", once the jealously guarded ancestral secret of the gay subculture, no longer belongs to gays, but to everyone.

Liz played a big part in that. By devoting so much energy to Aids work, Dame Elizabeth "came out" about her special relationship with gays and made herself tangible to gays themselves (for gays, the gay icon is a mother-goddess: when she intervenes on their behalf, it's like Lourdes at happy hour).

In the old model of gay iconography, the dependence of the fading starlet on aesthete bachelors was something that had to be kept discreet - even as she increasingly devoted herself to her most forgiving, most cloying audience. This would ultimately be the ruin of the diva - the more Judy faltered, the more words to Over the Rainbow she forgot, the more of a mess she became, the more the gays loved her. Theirs was a dance of the doomed - the rejected and the dejected slow-waltzing in a suffocating embrace (rather like Wimbledon FC and its supporters).

In the Seventies, gays became liberated, and the songs they were dancing to changed from The One That Got Away to So Many Men, So Little Time (even if the latter disco ditty turned out to be all too true). In the Eighties, another aspirational disco diva captured the hearts of gays - Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, in the early part of her reign, Maggie cast herself as a slightly dowdy nanny that the country needed to spank its bottom and dispense unpleasant medicine, but by the latter part of her reign she had mutated into a serious diva, with shoulder pads, hair and ambition that outgunned even Joan Collins. (Though nowadays, of course, she resembles more the Judy Garland type of gay diva - worshipped blindly by gay devotees.)

But Margaret in the Eighties turned out to be just a bad dress rehearsal for Madonna in the Nineties. As a pop star completely in control of her career, her image and, most important, her sexuality, she represented the culmination of a new kind of career woman - one that was spending more and more time with gay men. In addition to epitomising the gay daydream that the mother-goddess would come and rescue them, the Madonna cult epitomised the new alliance between gay men and independent straight career women looking to learn how to live single lives - which at times threatens to take over the world. Or at least Heaven on a Saturday night.

Madonna not only directly acknowledged her gay audience, she directly addressed them ("Justify My Love"), stole from them ("Vogue") and even said she was one of them: "I'm a gay man trapped in a woman's body." She transformed fag-haggery from fatal diva faux pas to fashion statement.

The gay icons that followed in her wake are mostly jokes - gay men's investment in them is largely campy or self-consciously comic: eg, Patsy and Edina, Margarita Prakatan, Kathy Burke, Jennifer Aniston. Which means, of course, that they are, like everything else these days, democratic. They are icon-lite. Their "gayness" is there for everyone to buy into. Of course, the greatest example of that is Geri Halliwell, a cliché trapped in a Basingstoke bargirl's body, who can't, it seems, be seen in public without a brace of oiled gay go-go dancers.

Liz, however, as an icon from a time when such things were taken very seriously indeed, has managed to survive long enough to escape the Judy effect - more or less - and reap the benefits of the Geri effect without being contaminated by it. Dame Elizabeth is a monument to a past we don't believe in any more and a future we can't imagine.

Her films radiate a femininity that we now know was impossible to embody. And as her eight marriages demonstrate, she has - like practically everyone else these days - proved to be very bad at performing traditional heterosexuality. She may even have married a gay man - as a recent, disputed biography of Richard Burton suggested, lending yet another layer of irony to their bitch-fest performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dame Liz: truly, a "gay icon" for everyone.

The writer's book, 'It's a Queer World', is published by Vintage.